Thinking about time – past, present & future

In the dining room of my maternal grandfather’s house stood a massive grandfather clock. It was old, dark wood and dark brass, a sombre and serious piece of furniture with dents here and there. Meals in that Burnley dining room were a time for three generations of our family to become one. The clock stood like a talisman and guardian over the laughter and stories that were a part of our lives.

The longcase clock, or grandfather clock, fascinated me with the constant pendulum movement and sounds from inside the tower of the case. The English clockmaker William Clement is credited with the development of this form in 1670. Until the early C20th century pendulum clocks were the world’s most accurate timekeeping technology.

The term ‘grandfather clock’ stems from a song written in 1875 by Henry Work, and the renaming from ‘longcase clocks’ caught on. The song was based on a particular clock found at The George Hotel, Piercebridge, Durham – where it still stands today. It was known to be an exceptional clock, it kept accurate time and belonged to the hotel owners, a pair of bachelors, the Jenkins brothers.

One of the brothers died and the clock curiously began losing time. Attempts to repair the clock failed, and the story culminates when at the remaining brother’s death, the clock ceased running altogether. Henry Work was a guest at the hotel at time. He was an abolitionist who helped thousands of slaves flee to freedom in the north, and imprisoned in 1841 and released in 1845, penniless. He began writing songs to earn a living on his release, including ‘My Grandfather’s Clock.’

But back to Burnley. As a child it fascinated me. I watched and listened to it during meals. I marvelled at how at different times of the day, that clock would chime with a wonderful resonant sound that echoed throughout the still house. The Westminster Quarter chimes, and the option of the Whittington chimes, always fascinated me. The clock chimed, the time line of my childhood.

Even more wonderful was my grandfather’s ritual as he meticulously wound the clock each day at 9am after breakfast, checking the time with BBC radio. He took the key from the mantelpiece and opened the hidden door in the side of the clock, inserted the key and wound – not too much, never over wind, he’d tell me solemnly – nor too little. He never let that clock wind down and stop.

When I was eight, he let me open the door and take a turn of the winding key. I remember the first time. To be part of this family ritual. Knowing how clumsy and ham-fisted I am today, I am surprised I didn’t do irreparable damage immediately!

After my grandfather died, it was several days after the funeral before I remembered the clock. The clock! We’d let it wind down, it stood forlornly quiet. The clock even seemed smaller, not quite as magnificent without my grandfather’s special touch. I couldn’t bear to look at it. The silence wasn’t a good sound.

A month or so later, my grandmother gave me the key. The old house was quiet. No ticking or chiming of the clock, all was still. The hands on the clock were frozen, a reminder of time slipping away, stopped at 10.20am. I took the key and opened the clock door. All of a sudden, I was a child again, watching my grandfather.

He was there, with me, and the key that held so much power. I stood, lost in the moment. Slowly, I inserted the key. But I didn’t wind the clock. I couldn’t do it. I imagined the clock working again, the slow deep sound, the tick-tock, tick-tock. Life and chimes breathed into the dining room, into the house, in the movement of the hands. But I didn’t wind the clock, we agreed to let it rest.

We never did rewind the clock, we left it silent. Life resumed, with a life remembered, but it remained silent and still. When my grandmother died a year later, the house had to be emptied, and we moved the bulky clock to my house. We had it restored and refreshed, it now stands looking large over me in the hallway. But I’ve never wound it up. It’s been stopped since it ran down the last time my Grandfather wound it.

The silent Grandfather clock stands as a sign that the passing of time is not simply an illusion, it’s actually happening, so we really have to make the best use of it we can and get out there and make things happen. Time is the currency of your life, you only get once chance, and only you can determine how it will be spent – be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.

Each of us has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day, and no matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow. Time is of the essence is a saying known to us all, telling us that it is never too late to be what you might have been. As French poet Paul Valery said Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.

Most productivity strategies focus on short-term efficiency, essentially how to manage your to-do list effectively, how to get more done each morning, how to shorten your weekly meetings, and so on. These are all reasonable ideas, yet we often fail to realise that there are certain strategic choices that impact our time on a larger scale. These choices can be categorised as Time Assets or Time Debts, a concept I read recently in a blog post from James Clear.

Time Assets are actions or choices you make today that will save you time in the future. Software is a classic example of a time asset. You can write a program one time today and it will run processes for you over and over again every day afterward. You pay an upfront investment of time and get a payoff each day afterward.

Time Debts are actions or choices you make today that will cost you additional time in the future. Email is a time debt that we all participate in each day. If you send an email now, you are committing to reading the reply or responding with an additional message later. Every email you send creates a small debt that you have to pay back at a later time.

This is not to say that all time debts are bad, or that all time assets are good, however, when you make these commitments you are also creating a time debt that you will have to pay at some point. Sometimes the debts we commit to are worth sacrificing for, many times they are not, and likewise what was a time asset at a particular moment turns out to have little realisable future value.

Each time asset that you create is a system that goes to work for you day in and day out. If your schedule is filled with time debts, then it doesn’t matter how hard you work, your choices will constantly put in a productivity hole. However, if you strategically build time assets day after day, then you multiply your time exponentially. Simply, time debts need to be paid, be careful how you choose them. Time assets pay you over and over again, spend more time creating them.

A similar theme runs through the Tim Ferris book The 4-hour week, a copy of which sits on my desk, reminding me of several things about my time assets and time debts. Like most people who have chosen to work for themselves, I try to build balance of ‘doing and building’ a pipeline of opportunities for today and the future. However, to be blunt, most days are chaotic with more good stuff than bad, and it’s my ambition and curiosity that frequently override common sense – I’m the time bandit who inflicts pressure into my day.

I’m good at planning, estimating, scheduling and meeting, if not exceeding my clients’ expectations and deadlines. The trick is to ensure I give myself enough thinking time, and I can then execute brilliantly in less time than most other people, with a level of insight, innovation and quality. If I don’t put the thinking time I disappoint myself – I can still meet client expectations, but I don’t ‘wow’ them with something standout – and that is my ambition, going the extra mile as standard.

But like the Grandfather clock, my time is running out! I know that is cruel to say, but it’s true and we need to realise that our time is limited, so we need to make the very best of it. I’m always looking for new productivity hacks – small steps I can take to work smarter, faster and better. So, what’s worked for me? I work on the basis that each day will bring a fresh set of ‘time-suck problems’ of unexpected distractions, so here’s how I work with four techniques that I use all the time.

Distinguish between urgent and important Steven Covey’s Time Management matrix is a really useful tool for this, here’s the link: This enables me to plan between stuff that is important/not important, and urgent/not urgent. Everything I need to do is in the plan, it just has a rank according to priorities. It’s also worth checking in on the definition of important and urgent, there is an important difference.

Honour the two-minute rule This one comes from David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ methodology, In short, if you’ve got something to do that takes less than two minutes, do it right now, with his ‘GTD’ approach:

– Capture: collect what has your attention

– Clarify: process what it means

– Organise: put it where it belongs

– Reflect: review frequently

– Engage: simply do

When in doubt, resort to the Pomodoro TechniquePomodoro is a method for breaking large tasks into small chunks developed by Francesco Cirillo. Set a timer for twenty-five minutes and work nonstop without doing anything else. Then take five minutes to do whatever you want. Then do another 25-5 cycle. Shower, rinse, repeat. Frequent breaks improve mental agility.

Mark your progress Professor Teresa Amabile’s Harvard research has shown that the single largest day-to-day motivator is making progress in meaningful work ( Sometimes it’s tough to see the progress we’re making, so checking in and reflecting on your headway at least twice a day is a good self-motivation technique.

Besides these techniques, I also apply some of my own thinking to sorting myself out, and don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s very much a ‘note to self’ check-in to ensure good habits are preserved

  • Don’t waste your most productive hours A growing stack of research shows that each day we reach our peak productivity a few hours after waking – my natural rhythm of wakefulness and concentration kicks in at 7am. I don’t lose this window of time to checking email or playing around on social media, I use it to do my most important work.
  • Plan for interruptions I only fill my day 80%, that way I can get ahead if the day goes well and do +20% more, or adapt and absorb unexpected stuff as it happens, and still maintain a rhythm and output for the day. In reality, my ‘Plan B’ is also my ‘Plan A’ with built-in contingencies. This gives me the feeling and reality of keeping focus and momentum.
  • Create available and unavailable time Only I can protect my own time, so having set priorities I stick to this with a ‘do not disturb’ attitude. There is no reason you should be at the mercy of everyone else. Some things are not moveable, so set boundaries, have a process and respect yourself, whilst knowing the things you have influence over.
  • Visualise my day Before making a decision or choosing a course of action, start with the ending in mind. Our days often take unexpected turns. Since there is no definition of working hours,” it can easily feel as if we compress a year’s worth of experiences into just one day.
  • Add learning opportunities into your normal routine I always try to find time for research and learning each day. Rather than scheduling this activity separately, I work it into my normal routine, fitting in and around client commitments and deadlines. This keeps me fresh and thinking about new ideas to incorporate into potential future client projects, but also keeps me refreshed each day.

How did it get late so soon, it’s night before it’s afternoon, December is here before it’s June, my goodness how the time has flewn – how did it get lat so soon?  Ok, it’s a quote from the fictional Dr, Seuss, but it reflects the reality that time management is an oxymoron. Time is beyond our control, the clock keeps ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting if we don’t do the things we want to do, regardless of how we lead our lives.

As Einstein said, the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once, so make sure you wind up your personal clock everyday, and make the best use of your time, whatever you’re doing.